UNDER PRESSURE IN THE BOLD NEW WORLD: Scott Ryser/UNITS (Pt. 2)

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Ed. Note: We continue our conversation with synth-punk pioneer Scott Ryser, in this interview by David Ensminger, originally published at Dagger Zine. Go HERE to read Part 1 of the interview as well as see assorted images and video. (Above: Scott, Rachel, LX, and Richard in 1980. Below, why not listen to the entire Digital Stimulation album as you read?)

David: Units is much more than a band name – it’s a metaphor for the systemization of society – as your film explored, and even thinking itself (time, numbers, words). Even the Sex Pistols showed films by Kenneth Anger during at least one of their gigs, and the Clash projected news headlines, but your films explored being a Unit and even the name was a homage to a character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In some ways, Units seems closest to bands like early Public Image Limited, in which everything related to the band is part of the concept – every image, every song, every decision mattered equally. Was that the idea?

Scott: Yes. That was the idea. As I said before, I don’t think you can underestimate the influence Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters (chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) had on the antiestablishment, prank driven, California punk and performance art scene in the ‘70s.  I liked the way Kesey had kept a sense of humor and a prankster mentality while questioning institutional authority, but what was really interesting was the way he and Tom Wolfe, through acid trips, had taken a look at the human race from a real outside-the-body viewpoint. The shaman or spiritual leaders of various Indian tribes and cultures throughout history had taken mind altering drugs in order to see the unseeable, but it had been quite a dry spell in America when Kesey and Wolfe experimented and wrote about it.

I didn’t need to take acid to see it. From the perspective of a social outsider I came to see humans and their environs as one dimensional units operating in a predictable clockwork machine. The Units name was central to most of what we were trying to comment on in our music and performances. To me, it represented the thinking process our culture had chosen.

We think in unit like words and numbers and time, each unit separate and distinct, like little shrink-wrapped products. We think by separating things, by breaking wholeness up into distinctions … and then often disregard or forget the interconnections that had existed between those things. We chop up the timelessness of cycles by creating one-direction timelines and putting a beginning, middle, and end to events. We take things out of context and categorize them. Instead of thinking in a holistic way we have create a box-like thought structure with straight lines and squares, things that are extremely rare in the natural world. We think with box-like ideas and build our houses that way too, with walls that protect us, but at the same time separate us from the sea of life outside.

The concept of “units” is like an artist’s creation. At some point way back in the beginning, we made all of this up. We chopped up wholeness into units to take a closer look at it, and we never put it back together.

The unit like way in which our culture thinks seemed omnipresent and pervasive to me. At the same time, it felt at odds with a more flowing, interconnected, and symbiotic reality. (Below: a selection of Units gig posters from Ryser’s archives)

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David: Like the Blowdryers, Z’ev, Los Microwaves, Tuxedo Moon, and others that didn’t quite fit the heavy guitar punk spectrum, you gigged at the Deaf Club – notorious not only for its Deaf members, but also because it served as an alternative to the Mabuhay, etc. Do you feel that space stirred a kind of experimentation, or sense of community boldness, that might have been less tolerated at other locales? Or was it just another dive?

Scott: It wasn’t so much that the Deaf Club stirred a kind of experimentation and community boldness that wouldn’t be tolerated at other locales. Those things were happening all over the city before and after the Deaf Club. The scene was a little more complicated than that. When we started performing, it was our intention to approach it more like street theater and NOT just play in rock-n-roll venues. So, it was natural for us to play in the display windows of Penny’s department store or play at Kezar Pavilion at a boxing match. At that time, Karen Finley was walking out naked and stuffing canned yams up her ass in other “punk venues,” and Philip from the Puds band was walking onstage naked with his pud sticking out of the hole of a 7” record in other clubs. There were gay clubs, like the one our drummer Richard played in the house band for, where the whole audience consisted of dudes wearing only buttless chaps … wacky shit was happening all over the city. You could see Jello from the D.K.s dive into the audience and get stripped at the Mabuhay and then walk across the street to the “regular” strip joints like Carol Doda’s and see live sex acts. It was a vibrant scene, and there were a ton of venues in S.F. alone. Even though many of them were small and not designed for bands to perform in, I never thought of any of the places that we played in S.F. as “dives”. It was because they were all part of the scene, and not just some isolated bar out in the middle of nowhere. I liked the sense of community and collaboration. For instance, in 1979, the people that booked the major punk clubs at the time, Dirk Dirksen from the Mabuhay Gardens, Robert Hanrahan from the Deaf Club and Paul (Rat) Backovitch from Temple Beautiful, all got together with some other venues and together they advertised and presented a week long festival called “The Western Front” where about 50 west coast punk bands played. So, I felt that in general, the whole scene was pretty interconnected.

I have some pre-UNITS history of being in some small town bands that played in dives, though. I’ve had the misfortune of playing cover songs in many Holiday Inn bars, bowling alleys, high school proms, fern bars, cowboy bars, state fairs, and the like. Dives are usually places where nobody gives a shit if the music is coming from a band or from a jukebox … places where people are eating, “having drinks,” or watching sports on the big TV while your band is playing Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water … or worse yet, there’s just nobody there. The Units ran into some dives when we toured across the States, but in S.F. it was very different, thank god!  The audience was really into the scene. Half the time it was hard to tell who was “the performer” and who was “the audience.”

Although the Mabuhay, Deaf Club, Temple Beautiful and 330 Grove were kind of the pioneer venues, there were a lot of other performance spaces. Some were art spaces, because there were so many artists in the scene. Some were gay clubs or discos that saw an opportunity to cash in on the scene and some were fly-by-night spots that someone would rent for a short time.  For instance, some of the other S.F. venues we also played at were The Farm, Intersection, Bac Dor, Sound of Music, I-Beam, Wolfgang’s, Trucadero, Stone, Waldorf, Kabuki, California Hall, Warfield Theater, Roosevelts, Club Foot, Savoy Tivoli, Folsom Studio, American Indian Center, Valencia Tool and Die, Kezar Pavilion, and other places I can’t remember… and for a few parties for the novelist Danielle Steel.

The Mabuhay Gardens was a club on Broadway that put on shows before punk started. So, it was already set up like a club with a stage and stage lights and a soundboard. The Mabuhay would also advertise its shows in the local papers.

The cool thing about the Deaf Club, the thing that made it special, was that it was created in the right place, just at the right time, by and for underground punk music. There was no sign or light over the door to get in and there was no advertising, except for the flyers that bands made to advertise their own shows. There was no stage and no stage lights. If you wanted a beer you had to write down “Bud” on a scrap of paper for the deaf bartender, who would never card anyone, to see. Because it was only around for about 18 months, it didn’t have time to attract the “normal, entertainment seeking people” from the suburbs that would come into the city on the weekends to gawk at a “punk show.”

So, the only people that even knew about the Deaf Club were deaf people and a few hundred people that were in local punk bands that would be playing the night before or the night after your band played, or the local artistic fringe that were into the scene. It was all spread by word of mouth. The club was just a little too small for some of the more famous out-of-town punk bands to play there, so it felt more like a community scene.

I think both Suicide and Devo were scheduled to play there, but the shows were cancelled due to them finding bigger venues. Robert Hanrahan, the manager of the Offs had rented the Deaf Club and ran it during what I consider to be the height of the S.F. art/punk scene, late 1978-1979, just before Bill Graham cashed in on it by putting on punk shows at the Stone, Waldorf, and California Hall. It was just before some of the more popular bands in the scene started opening for famous bands in big venues like the Kabuki and Warfield Theater.

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In fact, in 1979 Bill Graham closed San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom. Famous “dinosaur” rock bands galore played there: the Dead, the Stones, Queen, Cream, The Doors, and endless more. When Graham closed it, he presented his first show at California Hall, on Polk Street, an iconic gay area. The May 25th, 1979, gig, titled “A Nite of Electro Psycho Rock,” featured us, the Screamers, and Tuxedomoon – the inaugural “punk” show boycotted by locals due to inflamed ticket prices ($6.50/$7.50) and Bill Graham’s input. I hate to say it, but that was kind of the beginning of the end of punk as we knew it in S.F.

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The music genre “new wave” was just starting to get tossed around (we all considered it a dirty word at the time) because the term “new wave” sold better than “punk”, according to Sire Records chairman Seymour Stein. Before that, everyone just got thrown into the same “punk” pile. That’s probably why the music business savvy Graham chose to call the UNITS, the Screamers and Tuxedomoon “Electro Psycho Rock” instead of “Synthesizer Punk” … it was all about how Graham thought he could get the biggest bang for the buck with his advertising. Somehow make the transition and drag some of his masses of Winterland “rock” fans to California Hall and double up on the new punk cash jackpot.

We gigged often at the Deaf Club starting in February of ’79. The Deaf Club was a scene out of a horror movie. No sign or light or anything out front. You had to choose the right door and hope for the best.

David: In the late 1970s, San Francisco really did seem to embody the last frontier –people mingled at gay clubs, strip clubs, bookstores, punk clubs, crossing back and forth, freely participating in culture. What caused much of that to change – was it the birth of hardcore, the AIDs crisis, neighborhood gentrification?

Scott: I think all art movements have a life span. Whether it’s months or years. Part of the beauty and excitement of it is the knowledge that, like life, it’s a temporary thing. That it won’t last.

By definition, the avant-garde are people or works that are experimental or innovative. People that push the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo. That’s what was happening in S.F. in the late 1970s.

It doesn’t take long before the experimental and innovative become the norm and the status quo. And like I said before, our country is great at taking confrontation and dissent against the status quo, and repackaging it, and selling it back to the masses as sex, entertainment, and fashion.

Now, in 2016, you can go see a “play” in New York, advertised in the NY Times, re-creating the Deaf Club in S.F. back in 1979, complete with fake deaf people and a band pretending to be the UNITS. (Literally! I’m serious!). Only, like most “history,” it’s not completely accurate … the fake UNITS play real guitars instead of all synths.

Back in 1979, in order to go to the Deaf Club to see the UNITS play, you would have had to have seen a weird subversive, “anti-advertising” flyer that the real UNITS had made themselves in an underground parking garage that advertised the event. Some disposable artwork that they had gone to a “Xerox” place and reproduced 50 or so of. A flyer that we assumed would soon rot in the sun or the rain and become trash not long after they got taped or wheat pasted up on a streetlight pole on Castro Street or somewhere in the Mission District. If you found that weird flyer compelling enough, later that night you would have to walk over to a place called the “Deaf Club” … and maybe step around a dead guy and some gawkers, who were blocking an un-lit, unmarked door, so you could walk up four flights of crowded, smoky stairs, to see the real UNITS play at the real Deaf Club … where you could spit on them if you wanted to. And after the show, instead of exiting through the gift shop and buying a UNITS 7”, UNITS T-shirt and a cappuccino, you would probably be escorted out of the Deaf Club by a Fire Marshall or the noise complaint police.

Those other things you said are all true too, and plenty more. They all contributed to the demise of the original art/punk scene. Bill Graham co-opted the little D.I.Y. punk clubs, punk turned into hardcore, synth punk turned into Electronic Dance Music, many of our contemporaries died of AIDs or overdosed on drugs, society finally acknowledged that it was ok to be gay (so you didn’t have to sneak around to “creative, outrageous, and funny gay clubs” anymore), internet porn replaced strip clubs, rents went from dirt cheap to outrageously expensive, the Unit Training Film I made after dropping out of school went from being shown in punk clubs to being shown at Ivy League Universities, bands like the UNITS went from hand stamping and selling our own records to being subjected to “art directors” on a major record label with Michael Jackson, and innovators started making iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Grand Theft Auto and going to designer cocktail bars where they could meet up with their online dating service connection, instead of leaving their dinky little rooms and going to Deaf Clubs.  Shit like that happened. I still think San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the country, but it’s just too expensive to live there now for unknown artists trying to create a scene.  Most of the culprits involved in the original punk scene back in the late ‘70s have packed their bags and left. We were all lucky it lasted as long as it did.

But while Punk and electronic dance music became socially mainstream, for the most part, the “gay club scene” and “black electro” still remained underground for a while. It seems that the gays and blacks were the ones with the most serious political outrage, and the punk scene fed off that and was given the spotlight, while the gay and black scenes remained in the dark. You never saw any black musicians on MTV in the early days.

Below: The “History of the Units” Cover and Vinyl

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I thought he UNITS had made a bold move as a band, by ditching the guitars and using synthesizers, that was as punk as punk could be as far as I was concerned, but some innovative DJs were beginning to take it a step further. They were ditching the musical instruments altogether, and remixing the music-status-quo as they saw fit. Unlike decades past, the “band leader” of the dance club no longer needed a band! The new band leader was a DJ, and he could reconfigure, chop up, rework, speed up and slow down, in other words, remix the music, any way he/she chose to, and improvise in real time. It was now possible to blow a song up into a million jigsaw pieces, and reassemble them into a Dada collage of sound for the dance floor.

I figured that by 1980 the punk scene had pretty much been bought, sold and absorbed into the larger culture. The D.I.Y. remix culture and hip hop had arrived and it was now the cutting edge!

Black music in general, including black musicians playing keyboards had a big influence on the UNITS sound. I pretty much borrowed my synth leads from Louis Armstrong and Jimi Hendrix. I picked up my minimalist piano style from Count Basie and his big band. My band mate Tim introduced me to the Jamaican reggae scene that influenced The UNITS song “High Pressure Days.” Reggae also seemed to influence punk musicians in the U.K., exemplified by groups like Steel Pulse, Aswad, UB40, and Musical Youth.

The basic idea behind what we call the “remix” has its roots in Jamaica, where in the late 60s producers like Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby started releasing dub versions of tracks to occupy the B-side of 45s. These would usually be made to sound different than the original by adding effects (spring reverb, tape delay, flanging, EQ, etc.), and by cutting and rearranging the individual parts. (Below: Scott onstage at the Kabuki in SF in 1982)

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The UNITS were from the west coast of the USA, which had a rich East Bay keyboard synth funk thing going on. Funk gods Sly & the Family Stone (that shared the Epic label with us) started in San Francisco. Tower of Power also came out of Oakland … Con Funk Shun were out of Vallejo, and there was this huge audience in the East Bay for the antiestablishment George Clinton, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, and of course James Brown.

I’d have to say that the black synth player George “Bernie” Worrell, best known for his work with Parliament-Funkadelic, but also killer synth player for the Talking Heads, is the missing link from some serious funk to punk, to synth punk funk.

Patrick Gleeson was a synthesizer pioneer who impacted jazz recording, especially Hancock’s Crossings released in 1972. In 1968, Gleeson opened Different Fur in the Mission District of San Francisco and worked there as an engineer for portions of the first Devo album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, produced by Brian Eno.

Different Fur was also the studio where The UNITS recorded some of our major label, Billboard charting releases, like The Right Man, produced by Michel Cotton, the synth player for The Tubes. In 1983, Hancock had a mainstream hit with the Grammy-award winning instrumental single “Rockit from the album Future Shock. It was perhaps the first mainstream single to feature scratching and also featured an innovative animated music video that showed several robot-like artworks by Jim Whiting. The video was a hit on MTV (finally showing some work by black artists) and went on to win five different categories at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, including the category for Video of the Year. All of these synthesizer pioneers had a big influence on the S.F. synthpunk scene as well as the SF gay electronic-disco scene. You can hear some of that influence in the UNITS second, 1982 album, Animals They Dream About.

It’s also interesting that in 1981, the Dead Kennedys replaced their white drummer with D.H. Peligro, one of the very few black punks. He’s interviewed in the film Afro-Punk a film that explores race identity within the punk scene across America and abroad. Interviews cover issues of loneliness, exile, interracial dating, black power, and the dual lives led by people of color in communities that are primarily white.

The UNITS invited (black) synth players David and Jabari Allen to join our band in 1982, after seeing them perform a great synth funky set at the I-Beam club in SF. They had just put out a cool synth funk single in 1981 under the band name “ICU” on Yevrah Moons Records. At that time, the UNITS were getting more interested in Synth Punk Funk than just Synth Punk.

A lot of really great black synth music was going on in the Bay Area at the time, and it wasn’t some Hollywood bullshit scene either … the Black Panthers were founded in Oakland and actually put pressure on Sly Stone to dump the white dudes in the band and become more militant and political.

I’m bringing this up because it’s one of the reasons I have so much respect for the interrelated connections between black activism and black music, and gay activism and underground disco music. In these “communities,” politics and music, and the clubs where music is played, are joined at the hip. It isn’t just some disjointed “entertainment.” The clubs are one of the few places communities can become organized.

The Bay Area in California has a rich history of student activism. One of the political groups that drew me to enroll at San Francisco State University was Students for a Democratic Society. The first strike (ever) to bring Ethnic Studies into universities occurred at S.F. State University in 1968, and SDS had a big part in it. This strike, the longest student strike in U.S. history, led to the creation of Black and other ethnic studies programs on campuses across the country.

It’s very interesting to me that both the gays and the blacks had more “real” reasons to be political and pissed off than the white punks. But it was white punk music that seems to win the history prize for being tagged with “pissed and political music.”

There’s a long history of politics in music. It kills me that as far back as 1824, Ludwig von Beethoven couldn’t use the original title “Ode to Freedom” in his mind blowing Ninth Symphony because Napoleonic censors had forced him to change it to ‘Ode to Joy.’ I guess that those in power think some sedated “joy” is safer for political reasons than the word “freedom.”

Going way back to your question about what caused the scene to change, I’ve just talked a little bit  about the tip of the iceberg. I could go on about how the music scene went from regional to international almost overnight and how the internet changed everything, but that’s a story in itself.

David: I know your wife works with low income kids in Brooklyn, and you are still very passionate about the politics of class: “What bothers me most right now is the disparity and inequality of opportunity … it just perpetuates the status quo…indefinitely,” you told conversationswithbianca.com.  No doubt, this presidential election season, people like Bernie Sanders have focused on this, and cities like N.Y.C. and San Francisco have atrocious gaps between the rich and poor. Can empowering kids through education initiatives turn this around, or does greater structural change need to occur?

 Scott: Empowering kids through education initiatives is a good first step. I’ve seen how it can really help disenfranchised kids. But until greater structural change occurs on a national political level I think we may well be stuck with this status quo of inequality for a while to come. I agree with the basics of Bernie Sanders platform, that: “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.” The very wealthy have hijacked our political system, and now the system works almost exclusively for their benefit.

Why should billionaires and profitable corporations get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry? Why is it ok for wealthy people to hide their profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, while the rest of us have to pay our taxes and when there are massive unmet needs on every corner of this nation. Greed is keeping this country and most of its people from having many of the opportunities that the wealthy take for granted. I think it’s unfair to take advantage of all the benefits of America if you don’t accept your responsibility to help other Americans. And at the end of the day, why wouldn’t you! What is the benefit of dying with a big bank account!

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I try not to get too discouraged about how long it takes for things to change. I’ve seen things change in my life so I still hold out hope and continue to vote. I’m happy that we actually have a black president now, and for the advances in women’s and gay rights. I’m glad how the internet has had a democratizing effect throughout the world and how it’s given a voice to regular people, that previously had to rely on the presentation of the “news” that the major media organizations, owned by wealthy people, give us. I’m afraid I already see “free speech” on the internet starting to be censored by big money … from Facebook to Google searches.

I see the disparity and inequality of opportunity that happens to children that come from poor families vs. those that come from wealthy families through the work Rachel does with her Horizons education program. It’s really in your face here in NYC and Brooklyn…kids of millionaires living a few blocks away from poor kids from the projects. The wealthy kids have tutors, coaches, private lessons, summer programs, take international vacations, and they usually have two parents that are both highly educated, into the arts, read to their kids, and expect their kids to be highly educated. The wealthy kids go to private schools with dedicated college counselors that have personal connections with the admissions people at Ivy League schools. The kids from the projects have almost none of these opportunities!

I think it’s a crime that public school kids have so few opportunities to do art or music or to learn how to swim. It amazes me to see how empowered a kid becomes when they learn how to swim, or when they do a painting that their parent puts up on the wall, or play some music, or do a dance where everybody applauds for them. No wonder that kids who have none of these opportunities to feel self-confident and empowered end up feeling bored and disinterested at school.

Obviously, the more your parents care about your education, the better you will do. But it’s almost impossibly hard for a single working parent with no money to offer much help, no matter how much they care. A lot of people laugh at “Crazy Bernie Sanders” wanting to raise the minimum wage and offering free healthcare and free public college education (no rich person would send their kid to a “public college” anyway!). But you can’t tell me that the super-rich people and corporations of our country can’t afford to do these things, or that it wouldn’t help millions of our disenfranchised neighbors.

The Horizons program is funded entirely by volunteer donations and private grants. It helps prevent “summer slide,” which is the tendency for students, especially those from low-income families, to lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year. It keeps them reading, improves their reading and writing skills, teaches them how to swim, how to play a musical instrument, takes them on field trips to many of the cultural destinations N.Y.C. has to offer, and offers “experiences that enhance self-esteem, encourage social-emotional growth, build problem solving and critical thinking skills, and foster a lifelong interest in learning,” as the Brooklyn Friends School/Horizon program website avows.  Unlike the prison-like public schools, the kids I’ve seen seem to love it.

I just wish the city, state, and especially the federal government would lend a hand in funding programs like this for low-income kids.

Special thanks to David Ensminger and Tim Hinely of Dagger, and of course to Scott Ryser himself, who provided photos and media. A number of the photos used were taken by Rachel Webber. Below, Scott in 2013.

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